SEATTLE — An Algerian man whose sentence for plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport around the turn of the new millennium was thrown out for being too lenient was ordered Wednesday to spend 37 years in prison.
Ahmed Ressam, who had trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, was arrested in December 1999 when a customs agent noticed that he appeared suspicious as he drove off a ferry from Canada onto Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. A resulting search turned up a trunk full of explosives.
Ressam’s capture, after a brief foot chase, prompted fears of a terrorist attack and the cancellation of Seattle’s New Year’s Eve fireworks.
U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour had twice ordered him to serve 22-year terms, but both times the sentences were rejected on appeal.
This time, Ressam’s attorneys conceded that he should face at least three decades to satisfy the appeals courts, but no more than 34 years.
The Justice Department, which previously sought sentences of 35 years and of life in prison, recommended a life sentence again because of the mass murder Ressam intended to inflict. In those pre-Sept. 11 days, it was “a virtually unimaginable horror,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Helen Brunner told the court.
“If Mr. Ressam had succeeded,” she said, “it is likely hundreds if not thousands of innocent lives would have been lost.”
Brunner also argued that Ressam continues to pose a threat, as evidenced by his recantation of prior cooperation, which forced the government to dismiss charges against two co-conspirators.
Ressam’s lawyer, Thomas Hillier, disagreed, pointing to a letter Ressam sent the judge this week in which he wrote: “I am against killing innocent people of any gender, color or religion. I apologize for my actions.”
Ressam, who made a similar statement to the court in 2003, did not speak at the hearing Wednesday.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys said they would review the ruling, and neither indicated whether they would appeal. U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said that regardless of whether she agreed with the judge, the case represented a victory for the rule of law.
“We afforded a man who sought to do us the greatest harm the full due process of the law,” she said.
Coughenour read his lengthy sentencing order from the bench, noting that of the 4,000 to 5,000 sentences he had handed down in his 31-year career, Ressam’s case was the only one he could remember in which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals deemed him too lenient.
Nevertheless he thanked the appeals judges for their guidance, saying that some cases are so long and difficult that a trial judge can lose perspective.
“This case provokes our greatest fears,” Coughenour said. “Because Mr. Ressam planned this act of violence and took steps to carry it out, many, including the federal government, believe that Mr. Ressam is a continuing threat and he should never see freedom again. But fear is not, nor has it ever been, the guide for a federal sentencing judge.”